The third of the series, set to take place on September 15 at the Flin Flon Public Library, features visiting author Wendy McGrath. Wendy McGrath has written three novels and two books of poetry. Her most recent poetry collection is A Revision of Forward (NeWest Press 2015) the culmination of a decade-long collaboration with printmaker Walter Jule. She is currently at work on the final novel in her “Santa Rosa Trilogy” as well as another poetry collection and a collection of essays.
Wendy McGrath took the time to entertain a few questions ahead of her visit. Conversation starters, if you will.
Your remarkably long and productive collaboration with internationally renowned printmaker Walter Jule has led to exhibitions and to your latest poetry collection A Revision of Forward. In the Afterword, Jule explains how a statement by you inspired the creation of a new course titled “Word and Image” in the printmaking curriculum at the University of Alberta. I was particularly taken with how he captures the experience of reading your work: “As I became more familiar with McGrath’s writing I was struck by references to memory (cerebral and haptic) of the physical world: particular shapes, colours, smells and an overarching sense of what I can only call the circularity of time, an intuition that past and present can be simultaneous without destroying the temporal sequence of before and after.” The repetition of “becomes something else” at the end of each stanza of “Sub Terra,” a poem of great subtlety that deals on the surface with a flooding basement, is an outstanding example of the way design and rhythm contribute to this striking effect. Can you tell us a bit about your creative process? Or let me put the final line of that poem to you: “Wendy, why is it with you everything always becomes something else?”
I’d describe my creative process as multi-layered. With “A Revision of Forward” the creative process was lengthy. Walter Jule and I started a collaborative poetry-printmaking project some 12 years ago, so those initial poems I wrote inspired by ethereal artist’s proofs on ephemeral but tough Japanese gampi paper, and those first prints have evolved over time and over the collaboration into the eponymous long poem in the collection. Some of the other poems in “A Revision of Forward” have provided Walter with inspiration for additional prints. It’s interesting, too, because Walter has incorporated 3-D elements into some of the prints—so the project seems to have a life of its own. Generally speaking, though, my writing is triggered by a sensory experience, which could be anything, really, and then I might look for connections and links and listen for what I’m being told to do with this experience. The creative process for me is about transformation, transmutation, and transubstantiation—“everything always becomes something else.”
Compact and complex, your novels bring alive the workings of perception, memory and imagination during the formative years. Partway through Santa Rosa, the five-year-old protagonist (who, we learn earlier, is learning to read and write while navigating her parents’ disintegrating relationship), observes the luncheonette: “Red and white tile floors like teeth or piano keys from a piano and the keys could be any colour she chose. The music would be hers and would taste the colour of the keys. The sound: the colour. Would red keys really make the music sound different? She could taste each letter their sound their music.” In North East she tastes colours a number of times. Intrigued, I looked up synesthesia, thought about sense impression and creative expression, reviewed the normal cognitive development of a child, but none of this explains how to make the sensory experience and thoughts of a five-year-old character believable on the page. Can you give us some insight into how you achieved this?
The narrator in both Santa Rosa and North East is channeling the observations of the child protagonist, so that narrative voice was tricky to maintain. I had to balance the child protagonist’s insightful observations with her lack of understanding of what is actually going on. It wasn’t going to work if the child protagonist was too precocious, too cheeky, too knowing. When I worked on Santa Rosa and North East, I had to be conscious of what a child could actually interpret about what was happening around her and what the reader would then draw from those observations. I scrapped quite a bit of material along the way. The child protagonist can’t offer insight into why something is the way it is or why someone around her is behaving a certain way, but, she can render those observations in a way that allows the reader to be “in the know.” The child protagonist can’t be too aware, it wouldn’t ring true, but, she can have tremendous insight and sensitivity. I tried to posit myself in the time and place of the novels’ protagonist, remembering what it was like to be that age and to know that there is a world around you that you have no way into—physically or psychologically. Christine’s synesthesia does, however, allow her another dimension of cognition—albeit it is very much her own way of interpreting the world around her, herself and, as we see as she grows older, her creative and artistic growth. With Christine’s synesthesia, the reader knows what’s going on but Christine doesn’t have the experience and vocabulary to label it. She simply thinks this is normal and doesn’t attach a definition to these experiences, they simply are. She has no way of knowing that everyone else is not experiencing the world in the same way. I tried other narrative styles for the books, but, having a narrator filter the experiences of the child protagonist created a kind of distance, a filter, the kind of dream-like quality that I wanted where the characters move through the novel like ghosts.
Set in 1960s Edmonton, Santa Rosa and North East are, like your poems, richly detailed. What attracts you to this time and place, how did you go about the research, and how do you curate the detail?
This was the time and place of my childhood and, when I started the Santa Rosa trilogy, I was reflecting on my own family in that time and place in Edmonton. The neighbourhood of Santa Rosa had been absorbed into another community by vote of city council so, just like that, an old working-class neighbourhood disappeared. What did that disappearance mean? I extended that idea to the people that lived in that neighbourhood—their small tragedies, their triumphs, their experiences—where did they go? I imagined them as ghostly presences that exist in another sphere somewhere, so I put them on the page. I try to immerse myself in the time and place I write about: the objects, the products. I visited the Edmonton City Archives, looked at old photographs, and listened to the music of the time. I became the time and place.
“It was like she was inside the radio in the car and the songs were inside her body.” This is from a tension-filled passage in North East describing the journey from Edmonton to visit relatives in Saskatchewan. The relationships, the expansion and compression of distance and space, openings and closings, the inside and outside, the real and imagined, the contained and the uncontainable, create an almost unbearable pressure. You were born in Prince Albert and live in Edmonton. How have your writing life and sensibilities been shaped by the places through which you travel?
My family travelled “home” to Saskatchewan from Edmonton a lot when I was a child. We made the trips in different seasons, set-out at different times of the day (or night). Looking back on those journeys, every trip seems unique but then, at the same time, they also blur together—we’d tick off the towns as we passed them every 10 miles and we’d listen to different music on the radio, different announcers and ads. There were trips where my mother read entire books to us: Little Women, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates…the cloistered space of the car was both comforting and disconcerting. We felt safe in the backseat with our blankets and pillows but my parents often seemed to be talking a different language when I listened to them (while pretending to be asleep). There was always excitement when we got ready to go to Saskatchewan, packed up the car and took off. That same sense of excitement—of travelling toward and away from one place to another is still with me no matter where I go now as an adult. Those childhood trips to Saskatchewan showed me that worlds can exist at the same time in different places and it also gave me a real sense of time and distance passing—those long stretches of prairie highway where you seem to drive into the horizon forever.